Child Care Comes to Work


On a recent workday at her Irvine office, Traci Renner held a staff meeting, e-mailed clients, met with her boss and prepared a public relations proposal--all between diaper changes, feedings and play time with her 9-month-old son, Lucas, who rolled around the floor by her desk.

“It’s nice to know I don’t have to panic when my child care falls through at the last minute, like today,” said Renner, stuffing a teething ring into her son’s waiting mouth.

“Besides, I just like having him here with me sometimes.”

At a time more families are seeing both parents hold full-time jobs, the 40-employee Benjamin Group public relations agency where Renner works is addressing child care in a way that many companies wouldn’t dare--and its efforts have drawn national attention. Sick child? Work the day from home. Nanny canceled? Bring the kids on in.


Even though a tight job market and booming economy have prompted scores of employers to expand worker benefits and strike better work-life balances, officials say such workplace improvements haven’t applied as much to child-care support.

It’s taken nearly 20 years, for example, for the number of on-site corporate day-care centers to reach 8,000 nationally; in 1982 there were 204, according to a dependent-care consulting group in Michigan.

Operating costs, liability concerns and reams of licensing applications and inspections have deterred companies from making the on-site child-care leap.

But at Benjamin Group’s Irvine offices, it’s not uncommon to see Renner and other parents toting their children around the office, plopping them in a beanbag chair during meetings or putting them down for a nap in one of several office cribs.

Not everyone sees such an arrangement as practical or beneficial to the workplace. But as a result of this casual kid-friendly attitude and other programs for employees, the Silicon Valley-based agency has been repeatedly recognized by Working Mother magazine as one of the country’s best companies to work for.

And by the end of this month, the company’s employees in Irvine will be able to enroll their children in an on-site day-care center called Executive Sweet, making it the first on-site, corporate child-care center in Orange County, according to state officials. Los Angeles County has just a few such centers. The Bay Area has 11.


“I’m surprised there aren’t more,” said John Gordon, a spokesman for the state Department of Social Services, which oversees day-care licensing. “I would have expected at least to see some of the larger companies heading in that direction.”

But Sheri Benjamin, chief executive of Benjamin Group, said she has an idea why such child-care efforts are so unusual.

It’s been a two-year process to open her company’s on-site center, even requiring the entire Orange County office to move from Santa Ana to a larger site in Irvine with enough square footage to accommodate 20 children and enough room for an enclosed, grassy outdoor play area.

“Do you know how difficult it is?” asked Benjamin, who also set up an on-site center at the agency’s headquarters in the Silicon Valley. “It’s exhausting. But we’ve seen the payoffs. We were committed to this.”

After two years of code inspections, building changes and licensing approvals, Benjamin said, she is now waiting on final approval from fire officials so she can officially open the center at the Irvine offices.

The trend in corporate child-care centers began in the 1980s in the health-care industry, with hospitals--and their large numbers of shift workers--leading the way, officials said. Employees at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach have access to a day-care center that operates on its campus, but the center is not considered a corporate, on-site center because it is also open to the public.


Law firms and financial companies later began adding child care to their list of benefits, and now officials said they are seeing it splash into the technology industry. Motorola Inc., for one, boasts 12 on-site child-care centers in the U.S. and two abroad.

Cisco Systems Inc. runs an on-site center for roughly 100 children in San Jose and Amgen Inc., a biotechnology company in Thousand Oaks, recently expanded its 8-year-old center to accommodate 300, ranging in age from 6 weeks to 5 years.

“Child-care benefits, especially on-site child-care centers, are worth more than any amount of money,” said Ilene Hoffer, a spokeswoman for Bright Horizons, which provides employer-sponsored on-site child care for more than 325 clients worldwide. “It’s a competitive recruitment and retention tool for companies. If one company in an industry does it, many others tend to follow suit. They’d be crazy not to in this market.”

Sharman Stein, a senior editor for Working Mother magazine, said employers are often put off by the cost of providing on-site child care, which can exceed $100,000 a year. But with the number of working mothers now topping 26 million, Stein said, she expects to see more companies begin “testing the waters,” perhaps by providing emergency backup child care first.

At least 30 companies in California (a dozen in Orange County) offer such off-site services, designed to give working parents a safety net should their regular day-care arrangements fall through.

Typically, officials say, a working family will experience six to eight child-care breakdowns every year.


“It’s just a no-brainer for companies to do everything they can to keep their working parents happy,” Stein said. “We’ve seen time and time again that in order for employees to be productive, they have to feel like home base is covered.”

At Benjamin Group, the office sometimes turns into home base, with 5-year-olds raiding the staff refrigerator or cozying up with a video in the company lounge.

What some bosses may frown on as a distraction, though, has evolved into what employees said is an unusual perk. With a staff of more than 30 women and a handful of dads, there is never a shortage of hands to pitch in if a child needs tending when the parent needs to concentrate on work. There is a lounge with sofas and a VCR, and plenty of toys, they said.

“Half the time I bring her in here, I don’t know where she is,” said account manager Morag Rich, referring to her 6-month-old daughter, Brenna.

“I’ll get busy on something and then I have to walk through the office going, ‘Who has the baby?’ ”

Added associate Christine Eastman, who joined the firm six months ago: “I don’t even have kids, and I’m telling you, coming into the office after lunch and seeing the receptionist bouncing a baby on her knee is just plain fun.”


The arrangement has been practiced in the agency’s Orange County office for years while the company searched for a location that would meet the host of building restrictions required to operate a day-care center, said Benjamin, the chief executive, whose own children “grew up” in the center she opened nine years ago at the company’s headquarters.

“When we started this back then, people thought we were bonkers, especially being the small company that we were. But we strongly believed it was the right thing to do,” she said. “Now it’s an enviable benefit in the workplace. And the returns have far outweighed any investment we’ve made.”

In Orange County, there is already a list of employees who plan to enroll their children on the first day, Benjamin said. The company offers day-care subsidies that vary depending on salaries, but average about $266 per child per month.

The agency’s general manager, Lisa Zwick, who is expecting her first child next month, said the new day-care center “made a huge difference” in her decision to return to work after the baby is born.

“It is such a relief to know I can come back here and have the baby in day care, but still so close by, while I work,” she said. “All my friends are jealous.”